I knew those creeps at the Committee to Protect YA would hit me sooner or later, but I didn’t think they’d hit me this hard:
This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my next book, Afterworlds about a young novelist living in NYC. Afterworlds launches Sep 23 in NYC, and you can pre-order it at the bottom of this page.
Also, I’m on tour now! Click here for dates.
What Are Novels?
I’m not going to talk much about the history of the novel. Your local high school, university, bookstore, and library all have departments devoted to that subject. If you want to be a novelist, you should be reading lots of novels, new and old.
Go do that. Keep doing it your whole life.
For now, though, suffice it to say that the novel was invented somewhere between four hundred and a thousand years ago, and in the last century has superseded poetry, short stories, essays, and the rest to become the dominant form of literature.
Novels are powerful. They can help reform corrupt industries (The Jungle), start civil wars (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and provide touchstones for decades-long political movements (Native Son). Novels are so successful that their DNA has invaded other forms, such as narrative history, true crime, and memoir.
So what are novels?
My favorite definition is “a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.” I don’t know who came up with this, but its point is clear: novels are lengthy and lack the shiny perfection of shorter works. They are usually written in the rhythms of natural speech, also known as prose.
But not always! There are many novels in verse (in YA, most notably Ellen Hopkins’ bestsellers about troubled teenagers). And novels that are mostly prose often include other stuff: poetry, song lyrics, mathematical equations, computer code, “realia” like score cards and bus schedules, and even words twisted and transformed into visual art (Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, 1953). Before the twentieth century most fiction was illustrated. So, yes, novels can have pictures too.
In other words, novels are big and imperfect and supremely rugged, like a battered old trunk that can hold pretty much anything.
Young writers ask me all the time, “How long should my novel be?”
The lower bound of the novel is fuzzy. Science fiction folks (like me) tend to use the Hugo Awards’ definition: forty thousand words or more. In lay terms, a novel should be more than a hundred pages. Of course, the Hugo categories below that length are “novella” and “novelette,” terms that simply mean “little novel.”
Far more important: there is no upper bound to the novel. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is four thousand pages long. It was published in seven volumes from 1909 to 1927, but it’s all one novel.
I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s answer to the question, “How long should a man’s legs be?” He quipped, “Long enough to reach the ground.” In other words, your novel should be long enough to get to the end of your story.
The artist in me doesn’t care how long your novel is. (But the commercial hack in me suggests that you stay between fifty thousand and a hundred-fifty thousand words. Okay? Are you happy now? You made me be a commercial hack.)
Here’s a much more interesting question: What are novels good at?
Every art form has its specific “affordances,” a fancy design term that asks of an object, “What can you do with it?”
Ropes are good for pulling things, but not for pushing them. Coffee mugs are good for hot liquids (the handle keeps your fingers from getting burned) but desultory for champagne (you can’t see the bubbles!). FaceBook is good for finding old friends, but terrible for keeping old friends (and advertisers) from finding you. Twitter is good for snarking at the Music Video Awards, less so for nuanced discussions.
So let’s compare the affordances of the novel to other narrative art forms, to find out what novels are good for.
Imagine the opening shot of a film: a dirty and decrepit room, years’ worth of old newspapers stacked against the walls, opened and half-eaten cans of beans everywhere, and one wall covered with newspaper clippings about the president of the United States, the eyes scratched out of every photo.
Within seconds, we know that we’re in the house of a crazed assassin. Tension!
This is something films are good at: establishing settings more or less instantly. A film can open in an alternative steampunk Bangkok in the 1930s and, even if you don’t know anything about Thailand or steampunk or the 1930s, you are there.
A novel would require a lot of text to create a setting of that complexity. The writer can’t upload a whole image straight into your retina, but has to introduce the elements one by one. Novels have no audio track; they can’t give the viewer direct experience of the music playing next door, or the tone of a person’s voice.
On the other hand, a written word can do things a movie can’t. Many details escape the camera’s view: the etymology of a phrase in Thai, the construction history of a Bangkok Airways zeppelin passing overhead, or the text of a newspaper clipping that the assassin tore from the wall yesterday and burned. And novels can engage smells, tastes, and textures in a way that films, being audio-visual, can only suggest.
Another cool thing about novels: they have infinite budgets. You can build a whole city for a one-page scene, then burn it down. Your only limit on extras and special effects is your imagination and ability. (Comics also have infinite budgets, with a combination of novelistic and filmic affordances. But that’s another book.)
Here’s a similar, but more subtle, affordance: novels can compel aesthetic reactions across boundaries of taste. What I mean is, a skillful writer can convince readers that a group of musician characters is the most awesome band ever. But in a movie a real band has to appear and play actual music, which will not please everyone.
We novelists reach into our readers’ head and make them create their own perfect music.
The same thing happens with descriptions of beauty and charm, which is why when books are made into films, the casting decisions invariably cause dissent. Novels co-opt the reader’s imagination to create whatever the story requires. Every reader constructs their own version of that graceful waltz, that gorgeous sunset, that irresistible face.
On top of what novels can show the reader, they’re also very good at hiding things. If we need to, we writers can mention “a car” without any brand, vintage, or state of repair. If a detail isn’t important, we can make it disappear. We can walk around in a character’s head for a whole novel and not find out how old they are, what they’re wearing, or what they look like. (In first person, we can even decide not to disclose their gender.)
Sure, filmmakers sometimes avoid showing the main character, but it’s clunky and obvious what they’re doing. In a skillful writer’s hands, the reader might not even notice.
Let’s be clear about something: you can attempt any narrative trick in any medium, and as a young writer you should be stretching the form. But the fact is, some things will work better in film, some in writing, some in comics, and some on the stage.
If you find yourself using a coffee mug as a champagne glass, or as a hammer, you might want to rethink.
Okay, we’ve talked about what novels are good at, but what are novels best at? What’s the thing they do better than any other medium?
Here’s one answer: When you read a novel, you can know the agony of a character’s stomach ache, the limitations of their colorblindness, what bacon means to them, or the way they feel when a loved one comes through the door. Their fears, hatreds, beliefs, prejudices, and the exact words they’re thinking can be laid out on the page. All the fragments of a character’s memories and knowledge can be accessed as easily as the facts in the reader’s own brain.
I would argue being inside people’s heads is the grade-A, number-one affordance of the novel. To never access anyone’s thoughts or feelings in a novel is like using a champagne glass as a hammer. (Artists like to do that sort of thing, of course. But if you try it, you should be ready for the broken glass and severed fingers.)
Here’s a crazy theory for you:
We humans have a superpower. We can look at another person, observe their facial expressions, words, and body language, then add this data together with everything we know about them and all the other humans we’ve ever observed, and make guesses about what’s going on inside that person right now.
Are they sad? Angry? Hungry? About to stab us?
This trick, called empathy, is a very useful day-to-day skill. It helps us know when to comfort someone, when to make a joke, and when to run away. But its long term consequences are far bigger, because empathy turns us into social creatures, who can cooperate to build tribes and cities and the internet. It’s the basis of art, ethics, and civilized society, not to mention a crazy little thing called love.
The novel is the outgrowth of this ability, because to read is to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Just as movie cameras are modeled on the human eye, the novel is modeled on our empathy. It’s not about watching someone, it’s about being in their head. In other words:
Novels are machines for becoming other people.
As we read, we become someone else. Often this person has a more exciting and glamorous life than we do. They may wield magic or posses awesome technology, live in another era or on another planet. More important, they may think differently than we do, and see the world in radically strange ways, and yet we are still drawn into those ways of thinking and seeing. To read is to travel, not just geographically, but into other minds, other lives.
This is what the novel is best at. And that’s because—more than any other medium—novels are an art form grounded in point of view.
Between now and November, I’m posting excerpts from a work in progress called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, but you can preorder Afterworlds, my book about a young novelist living in NYC, on the bottom of this page.
What Are Stories?
Okay, it’s time to get to the writing advice part of this book. Almost.
First we must talk about stories. Like, what are they?
Stories are a technology.
They’re a tool, one invented to inform, persuade, and entertain other humans. This technology is very old, probably created not long after humans came up with language itself.
Stories are also very powerful. Someone who remains unconvinced after a thousand pages of scientific data can often be swayed by just the right anecdote. Otherwise sensible people will believe absurdities as long as they appear in the context of a compelling tale, like an urban legend. We often recall the stemwinder version of an experience long after we’ve forgotten what really happened that day.
This is why some of the oldest things we posses as a culture are stories.
Here’s a little story with a very long pedigree:
There was once a donkey who found itself exactly halfway between a bale of hay and a bucket of water. The donkey was equally thirsty and hungry, so it couldn’t decide which to consume first, the water or the hay. As the day went on, the beast grew hungrier and thirstier in equal measure, so it stayed paralyzed, unable to choose. In the end, the donkey died of thirst and hunger, its decision still unmade.
News flash: this isn’t the world’s best story. It’s kind of silly (or sad, if you’re Team Donkey) and there’s not much rising action or character development. And yet this story has been told for over two millennia.
Back in 350 BCE, Aristotle used the donkey story to talk about physics. In his telling, the donkey’s desires represented the balance of forces in the world. If the donkey chose one way instead of another, nature itself would fly out of equilibrium.
In the twelfth century, the Islamic scholar Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali used the story to talk about free will. He argued that people can break stalemates like the donkey’s even if they have no reason to make one choice over the other. That’s what makes us humans special.
In 1340, the French philosopher Jean Buridan used the story to make the opposite point, suggesting that when facing two equally good choices, the only rational thing to do is wait until circumstances change.
Three centuries later, Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Buridan, but took a different tack than Al-Ghazali, saying that a rational person can always see a distinction between two choices. In other words, the world is complex and nuanced and full of differences, and if you don’t see that, you’re an ass.
Many other thinkers have weighed in since. I first heard a version of the donkey story in 1980, in a Devo song called “Freedom of Choice.” Devo’s retelling (featuring a dog with two bones) suggests that these days people have too many choices, and might prefer fewer. My teenage self could relate to Devo’s version, that the choices offered by present-day consumerism aren’t really the same as freedom.
Such is the power of this one very short story. It has been used to make countless distinct and contradictory arguments across two dozen centuries. And given that no actual donkey in that situation would hesitate for a second, this tale has managed all this despite being patently unbelievable! (This is an important thing for us novelists to remember: stories don’t have to be credible, true, or even to make logical sense, to have lasting importance.)
So why is this tale is so persistent?
Perhaps we all recognize ourselves in the donkey. We’ve all had the experience of being unable to make a choice, and of paying a price for our indecision.
And check this out: we never find out what kind of music the donkey likes, or what its politics are, or if its parents loved it enough, or what it had for breakfast. And even though the donkey isn’t involved in a hot paranormal love triangle or a million-dollar jewel heist or a revolution against a dystopian government—even though it isn’t a character at all in the modern psychological literary sense—we somehow still identify with this beast.
Crazy, right? Why should we care?
Here’s my theory:
We are all creatures who make decisions (or fail to make them) and then suffer the consequences. When you tell us stories about other creatures who make (or fail to make) decisions and then suffer the consequences, we listen.
We listen hard.
It’s like we’re scared not to.
And that’s why novels are really important.
Click here to read the next post, Part 3, “What Are Novels?”
My next novel, Afterworlds, is about a young writer reworking her first novel after NaNoWriMo. I thought a fun and useful promotion for it would be a series of writing advice posts. I got carried away.
So between now and November, this blog will host excerpts from a non-fiction book I’m releasing next year, called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, because it’s not done, but you can preorder Afterworlds on the bottom of this page. It’s out now.
What Is YA?
Young adult fiction has exploded over the last two decades. Once a small and sleepy corner of publishing, YA has become a major part of the industry, the only category to have grown by double digits every year since the mid-1990s. YA is now a profit center that helps keep the rest of the industry afloat, and the primary engine for creating new readers. The massive sales of YA mega-hits like Twilight, Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars have also help kept a lot of bookstores from going out of business.
I have some theories about why this sudden explosion of young adult literature came about, but I’ll come back to those later. First, let me clear up a really important misconception: The genre of YA is not “fiction for teenagers.”
Partly, this is a matter of fact. Studies suggest that about half the YA audience is adult. But more important, the idea that YA is for teenagers is a conceptual error about the definition of genre itself. Genres are sets of practices, techniques, and stylistic conventions. Genres consist of shared assumptions and shared canon. In other words, a genre is not an audience. When someone tells you that they write “novels for men,” or “novels for old people,” or “novels for urban youth,” they aren’t talking about genre.
So what are YA novels, then, if not books for teenagers?
They are novels about teenagers, from a teenage perspective.
It’s pretty simple, really. YA is the set of all stories about what it’s like to be a teenager. Not from an adult looking on (or looking back) but from inside the teenage years while they are happening. YA is literature (or movies, TV, comics, video games, ballet, or whatever) that takes us into the hearts, minds, and lives of teenagers.
So how did this particular genre get so huge? Why would so many readers want to inhabit the lives of people who aren’t quite children, nor really adults?
To understand that, you have to know what a teenager is.
What Are Teenagers?
A couple of hundred years ago, there was no such thing as teenagers. The word did not exist, nor did the concept. There were only children and adults.
When people turned thirteen or so, many joined the navy, or got married, or went into the mines and factories. Many young people worked sixty-hour weeks, and child soldiers were common. (Some were rather good at their jobs. In the US Civil War, an eleven-year-old named Willie Johnston won the Medal of Honor, the highest his country bestowed.) I spew these facts not to outrage you, but to make a simple point: teenagers didn’t always exist. We had to invent them.
It happened slowly. Britain, in the throes of industrial revolution, often led the way. There, the workday for eleven through eighteen year-olds was shortened to a mere twelve hours in 1833. (Progress!) In 1844, the age for joining the navy as a midshipman was raised to 14. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929. Over two centuries, a space opened up between the complete dependence of infancy and the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood. We had to give this space a name.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first appearance of the word “teenage” as 1928. The word “teenager” did not appear till 1949. By then, things were changing quickly. In the decades after the Second World War the industrialized world created nothing less than a new stage of life. We invented teenagers.
So what the hell are they?
The legal definitions are too long to list here. In most countries, at some point in the teenage years citizens reach the age where they are allowed vote, consent to sex, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, sign contracts, leave school, drive cars, marry, gamble, join the military, or work at other dangerous jobs. Exactly at what age these all happen depends on geography, and is the subject thousands of pages of law. These laws change all the time, buffeted by social mores, by new technologies, and by moral panics whipped into existence by some of the silliest people on the planet.
In other words, it’s all a bit of a muddle.
The cultural aspects of being a teenager are just as tangled. Whatever teens flock to—skateboards, file sharing, hoodies, rock music, rap music, MySpace—will soon become the subject of a moral panic. This is because teenagers frighten adults.
Five little kids in a store is cute. Five adults, good business. But when five teenagers gather, it’s loitering. It’s time for a curfew, or closed-circuit cameras, or a device that emits annoying high-pitched sounds that only teens can hear. (Seriously. Just google “mosquito teens.”) To put it simply, adults see teenagers as big enough to be dangerous, but not old enough to have been civilized yet.
They are uglies, if you will.
Here’s the weird thing: Despite this underlying terror, popular culture celebrates the teen years as carefree and happy, a time of consequence-free exploration. And in our youth-worshipping commercial world, teenagers (those with perfect skin and symmetrical faces, at least) are put on a pedestal. Images of teens are used to sell everything from clothes to food to music.
And let’s not forget the drama of those years—the time of firsts. Somewhere in all this muddle is when most people experience their first sexy kiss, tell their first meaningful lie, and suffer or commit their first real betrayal. Often for the first time, someone close to them dies. Most people drink their first beer, break their first law, and have their first political awakening as teenagers. These years see our first jobs, our first glimpses of independence, and our first life choices so serious that we can never completely undo them. And, of course, our first loves.
So let us recap. We have a global culture inventing an entirely new phase of life, engaged in a messy, noisy conversation about what it means to be an adolescent. We have an oppressed class, whose passions are harassed and banned, whose rights are curtailed, even while their customs are celebrated and their images ever more glorified and sexualized. We have an age of drama and emotion and reversal, where good days are transcendent, and bad days can feel like the end of the world.
Seems like there might be some pretty interesting stories in there.
Starting in three weeks, I will be on tour in the US, UK, and Canada.
I have move all this info to my ON TOUR NOW page.
The schedule for my Afterworlds tour is slowly coming together, and I’ll be posting a draft of it here soon. But there’s one special event I want to mention now:
On October 22, I’ll be doing an event in San Francisco to benefit NaNoWriMo. In this special presentation, I’ll talking about the craft of writing, the importance of NaNo, and other stuff of interest to young and not-so-young writers.
This is a ticketed event, and you can buy tickets now! (See below.) The ticket price of $22 INCLUDES a copy of Afterworlds and a guaranteed place in the signing line. On top of which, 15% of the purchase price goes to support NaNoWriMo.
All the folks at Books Inc. are early supporters of my career, so I’ll make sure that this is the best event I can make it. Hope to see a ton of you there.
Wed, October 22, 2014
Books Inc. Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness St
San Francisco, CA 94102
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Click Here to visit the Brown Paper Tickets event page.
If you can’t make the even but would like to pre-order Afterworlds from Books Inc, click here.
Below is my Gen Con schedule, but first some interesting news:
Early this year I returned to the Uglies universe to write a short story called “How David Got His Scar.”
David, of course, has a scar through one eyebrow, the origin of which is the subject of much discussion. In the novels, Tally asks him about it, and he says, “I’ll tell you how I got it one day.” But he never does. Because he and I are perverse that way.
In the Shay’s Story graphic novels, he STARTS to talk about it once, but only says something about being chased by a bear. Still perversely uninformative.
But now, dear readers, you can discover the unvarnished truth in this Barnes and Noble Exclusive edition of Uglies! Just look for this black sticker at B&N stores:
That’s right, you can pay money for a book you already own for the sole purpose of reading 4,000 new words! (Not even 4,000. Like, 3914 words.) You could also go into a store and just stand there and read it. (But you would never do that. You are a TRUE fan. Have I mentioned how great your hair looks today?)
You can also order this exclusive edition online right here.
The story is set in the time before David has met Tally, but after Shay’s runaway friends, Croy and Astrix, have reached the Smoke. It was fun writing in that world again, particularly from a new viewpoint, and it was weirdly easy too. (Read NOTHING into this statement. Unless you want to.)
Also, because someone is bound to ask, I hereby declare this story CANONICAL.
Anyway, here’s my Gen Con schedule. See some of you in Indianapolis!
Thursday, August 14
Writer’s Craft: Creating Story Arcs
The Art of Leviathan
Friday, August 15
Q&A with me
Business of Writing: Selling Your Stories
Saturday, August 16
Pushing the YA Envelope
Impact of Reader Gender on Your Writing
Just got copies of the mass-market Japanese version of Behemoth, shown here with Leviathan. (Goliath isn’t out yet, but will be in October!)
Love these covers.
The art for these smaller editions is by the same artist as the larger format, Pablo Uchida. Here’s his site, where he often posts the studies for his covers.
For example, the bigger format Goliath cover, with the studies bloew:
Too bad novels don’t get alternate covers, like comic books sometimes do. It would have been cool to have seen all four.
More cool Levithan art is coming soon, including an incredible model of the Stormwalker.
And don’t forget, Afterworlds comes out in 43 days!
Behold the new website, reskinned in honor of Afterworlds (which now has its own page at last). I hope you enjoy the new look.
Let me know in the comments below if anything is broken anywhere, especially in the Forum.
Next week I’ll be at San Diego Comic Con, so if you’re there come see my panel, Sunday at 1PM or come to my signing at the Mysterious Galaxy Booth (#1119) on Saturday, 1:00p.m. – 1:30p.m.
If you’re in San Diego but not going to Comic Con, come see me at the The Yellow Book Road Bookstore, where I’ll be talking about Leviathan and Afterworlds.
The Yellow Book Road Bookstore
2750 Historic Decatur Road
San Diego, CA 92106
Sunday, July 27
And finally, here’s the awesome animated cover for the UK edition of Afterworlds:
Pretty cool. See (some of) you on San Diego!
With Afterworlds coming out, I’ll be traveling and making appearances all year long. The tour in September and October isn’t set yet, but here are a few places I’ll definitely be:
San Diego, CA
Signing at the Mysterious Galaxy Booth (#1119)
Saturday, July 26
1:00p.m. – 1:30p.m.
My books will be on sale there too!
“What’s Hot in YA?” panel
Sunday, July 27
1:00p.m. – 2:00p.m.
Signing afterward in the Sails Pavilion:
AA09 02:30 PM – 03:30 PM
The Yellow Book Road Bookstore
Just me, talking about Leviathan and Afterworlds
2750 Historic Decatur Road
San Diego, CA 92106
Sunday, July 27
July 30-Aug 3
Details forthcoming, but I’ll be there!
Texas Teen Book Festival
Also, if you’re a fan of Justine and live in Australia, her new novel, Razorhurst, is out there this week. She’ll be launching it in in Sydney and Melbourne, so click here if you want to join her at the party!
Anyway, that’s how my year is shaping up so far. There will be many more events, especially when I go on tour for the release of Afterworlds on September 23.
Hope I get to see a lot of you in person!
In the meantime, the Afterworlds trailer remains awesome:
Click here to see it bigger.